“She just doesn’t know when to quit.”
I hear my mom in my head every single time I find myself in yet another stupid situation I’ve dug myself into. This time was no different.
I had a quick flashback of 16-year-old me snorting another huge line of meth, knowing I’d likely just stepped into territory I couldn’t come back from, but not caring one bit.
“She’s right. Why is she always right.” I cursed myself as I dug into my pack for my phone. I was sixty some odd miles into my latest 100 mile effort. It was pitch black. My headlamp battery had died, my charger wasn’t working, and I was fumbling trying to find a light–desperate for anything to help me navigate the rocky technical terrain in this section of the Pinhoti Trail. The next aid station was four miles away. Rookie mistake.
I finally found my phone, activated some semblance of light, and began to cautiously move forward with it, determined not to let this be a major setback.
“There’s no chance I’m quitting this one. No freaking chance.” I said out loud to myself through gritted teeth.
I knew what it would take..
The 2020 edition of the Pinhoti 100 mile endurance race, as you might have guessed, was definitely not my first hundred mile rodeo. In fact, this particular race was to be a hefty notch in a well loved belt of mine.
Back when I was a fresh ultrarunner with years of possibility ahead of me, I sat down to create a running adventure bucket list. Amongst cooler ideas like “tackle the Annapurna Circuit”, I added this: “Finish ten hundreds within ten years”. At the time, I was in my twenties. I had successfully overcome a life filled with extreme self sabotage – partly thanks to running, mostly thanks to God. With four hundreds under my belt already, I didn’t feel like finishing six more over the coming years would be too much of a challenge. It was simply more of an accountability thing in my mind; a way to aim for longevity in the sport.
But as it does, life began to change. My kids grew, my responsibilities grew, and my body grew increasingly tired of the constant damage. I eventually lost interest in the 100 mile distance somewhere around 2016, and instead found myself favoring wild and unruly solo adventures in mountains.
Yet something–somewhere deep– still gripped me about completing that ten year, ten 100 mile challenge.
With each passing year, I would try to give up on the goal, but then discipline would win out, and I would force myself to go through the motions again and tackle another one, just to stay true to that old goal. By the final year, 2020, I had accumulated nine finishes. All I needed was one more finish before December 11, 2020 to complete my goal of 10 finishes within 10 years. Just one. But in early 2020, I soon realized that last one would be a bit trickier to come by…
Change of plans.
I initially had signed up for Hellbender 100, set to take place in April 2020, but then COVID reared its ugly head. Most Spring races, including Hellbender, were cancelled or postponed. I was disappointed, but not deterred. I signed up for Pinhoti 100 instead, which was set to take place later in November. I filed it in the back of mind, hoping perhaps things would be less terrible in the world by then, but not truly counting on it.
The months passed, and 2020 unfolded. Covid hit me strangely, as it did many runners. With many sick family and friends, my anxiety went nuts, and I spent the spring and summer months escaping reality and running myself into the ground as a way to cope. There were no race plans to keep me smart or accountable, so I went to town on whatever piece of trail or distance my heart desired. By early fall, I had already tackled over nine solo ultra adventures, a couple nearing 50 miles or more, with plenty more mountain efforts thrown in for good measure.
By October, I was as fit as a fiddle, but man I was tired. Real tired. So tired, that I was truly starting to dread that final 100 hanging over my head. I began to think perhaps the whole “10 in 10” thing was nothing more than some arbitrary numbers I’d put together. As the race drew closer, I swear to you I refreshed my email no less than five times an hour secretly hoping to see a Pinhoti cancellation message from the RD, Todd Henderson. But it never came. Instead I got several reassuring messages of, “Hey! We’re still on guys!” ….man.
Truth be told, a quiet battle raged within me. Did Number 10 really matter to me anymore?
I wasn’t so sure.
Part of me wanted outside forces to take my options away from me. I didn’t want to do the last race, but I also didn’t want to take the blame for my failure. I wanted my hands to be tied. But it just would not happen!
One friend told me: “If this no longer serves you, then let it go.”
That’s really nice, I thought, if only I knew how to let crap go!!
DISCIPLINE//the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.
My early life truly lacked discipline, yet the last decade had been nothing other than me trying to perfect the very art of it. I realized that the body will always seek out the easiest, most comfortable, most self-serving pleasurable thing to do, but the mind has to override those emotions and decide what is the right and best thing to do. If I wanted to stay disciplined I learned I could not have gray lines there. I’m either all in, or I’m all out. There can be no in between.
I knew deep down that I owed it to 25-year-old goal driven me to remain all in.
No matter how tired, how run down, how unmotivated I was….
I needed to complete one last 100 mile race.
So that’s exactly what I set out to do..
On November 2nd, 2020, I was ready to apply sheer discipline to 100 miles of Alabama trail.
Dan dropped me off at the start, and I spent a few moments praying and visualizing the battles I would need to conquer over the coming day.
I have finished this race two times before. Much like all things in 2020, the start line looked a little bit different this time around. The field had thinned out, and runners were spread out all through the starting area of Pine Glen Campground.
Pinhoti has a bottleneck start, and the start always trips me out for that reason. You’ve got this massive swarm of runners all trying to file onto a tiny single track trail right out of the gate. I’m used to running completely alone in vast wild places, so this onslaught of people always gives me so much anxiety! I decided this time around to just let the majority of the runners go ahead of me and hang back to avoid the shenanigans. I thought this way I could stay chill, take some time to warm up, then work my way toward the front as the miles progressed. Big mistake.
While I’m definitely not anywhere close to the fastest female running these trails, I’m still a pretty solid and experienced trail junkie. So as I basically walked, and even stopped and waited for runners to slowly and cautiously navigate roots, honestly, I kind of wanted to punch myself in the face.
Why did I set myself up like this? I normally blaze through this stuff!
Due to the tightness and camber of the trail, it was dang near impossible to pass anyone for the first six miles. Any chance I got I would take it to surge and breakaway, but I could not quite make up any ground. I eventually decided to stop fighting the urge to run hard, and simply settled into the time I’d been given.
Just be patient.
The morning was abnormally warm and humid for November. If you’ve read this blog, you might remember the time I collapsed mid-100, fell into a coma, and ended up in the ICU thanks to high heat and humidity. So my guard was definitely up. I knew I could not drop the ball with my fueling and pacing if I wanted to snag Number 10 today.
You live and you learn, I mused.
As I slowly worked towards the next aid station, I thought about those first few 100 mile races.
Man, I was fierce, but I lacked control.
I had drive, but I lacked wisdom.
I had speed, but I lacked patience.
I had learned so much over the years. I let the memories carry me forward.
You need people.
When I finally made it to my first major mental checkpoint around 20 miles, I was excited to see my people.
I can always count on my husband Dan, and ride or die Ashley Bailey to support my running addiction. They always show up for me. Dan and I have been together since I was 16, and I’ve known Bailey since we were kids. That familiarity is such a bonus in this environment. My friend Zach also made a cameo for crewing this one, though he was actually out there pacing his dear good friend, Hump, so I only saw him briefly.
“I lost a lot of time back there. That was way too slow.” I said as I ran to the car. I was 23 miles in or so, and had already blew out a shoe. They swapped me into some other shoes as we talked.
“You’re fine. Don’t worry about it. Just run.” Dan said, always reminding me to stay on track mentally.
“You’ve got 20 miles until we see you again so you’re packed up. We put the head lamp in there in case.”
“Alright. See you guys at 42!”
With that, they filled me up and sent me off. Strictly business with these guys. That’s totally intentional though– I have to keep my interactions with my crew very short and to the point. I love them all so much that when I see them throughout the race, it makes me feel all the emotions. I do not run well with those emotions! In fact, ahead of time, I ask my crew to be mean and cold to me so I don’t get any warm and fuzzies. When you’ve survived enough of these things, you pick up tricks like that along the way.
By the way, I always see the mention of a head lamp in my pack as a personal challenge. Challenge accepted.
Miles 20-40 of any 100 usually tax my mind. It is during this phase that you realize you’re so far into a run, yet still soo far away from your goal. It’s a total “mind eff”, and if you dwell on it long, you’ll almost always pull the plug on the race. I knew I had to focus big time to get through this next section, and simply keep going through the motions.
The heat and humidity had given way to a constant light rain. It was coming down just enough to keep everything nicely chaffed and blistered, but I ignored that and focused only on the positives, another handy trick. The only positives I could find were that I was still able to run well, and the fall foliage was incredibly vibrant and beautiful. The trees were popping against the fog with saturated shades of fiery red, and warm hues of orange and yellow. It was mesmerizing. I felt so grateful to be running and enjoying the scenery. The miles passed quickly.
Around mile 35, it occurred to me that out of the three times I’d done this race, this was by far the strongest I’d felt during this section. Over the years I’ve learned to be comfortable alone. Not just comfortable, but I’ve learned how to thrive. That realization fueled me on my climb up Bald Rock, one of the harder sections of the course.
I handled the climb with ease, but what goes up must come down. I was so close to my crew at mile 42, but first I needed to descend Blue Hell to Cheaha Lake. This super technical and steep stretch of trail is by far my least favorite part of Pinhoti 100. No matter how much life you have in your legs, you’re still 40 miles into the race when you have to tackle it. I knew to take it easy here because it will eat up even the peppiest of runners. That was for you, Twiggs.
After a few minutes of that tricky descent, I was getting anxious to see some familiar humans. Thankfully my crew was right around the corner. My headlamp was still in my pack.
I ran into the dispersed crowd of people at the aid station, delighted and renewed by familiar faces.
Just so happened one of those faces was my
dear good friend Twitter archnemesis, Andy Jones-Wilkins. He was at the event to pace one of his coaching clients. Unfortunately, his client had a rough day out on the trails, and needed to call it quits early on. This left AJW on pacer duty without a runner.
Dan and Bailey flexed their pit crew experience, and refilled my pack and prepped me for the next big stretch of miles as I chatted away.
“How’s the 5th Annual Last 100 miler going?” Andy jested.
I rolled my eyes as I took a swig of Gatorade,”….Fine.”
Andy was eager to get some miles in and said he was going to run me to the next aid station 2.5 miles away. Though I had planned to go sans pacer, the news brought me to life. I love talking to Andy.
If you’re not dialed into Running Twitter, you likely aren’t in the loop about the incessant smack talk that has taken place over the last few years between Andy and me, but I can sum it up for you. Goes like this: I tweet something to the world, Andy replies, unnecessarily calling me stupid, blonde, washed up, vain, obnoxious, and/or slow. Then, I snap back, reminding him that he is OLD. Roughly 203 in runner years! And this cycle continues. However, despite the scenes that play out on the socials, Old Man and I are –SHOCKER– actually quite good friends. (And by friends, I mean I view him as my Ultra Dad, and he views me as an obnoxious little puppy that won’t shut up or go away.) …Great friends.
With AJW in stride, we took off towards the next aid station. The miles and conversation unfolded as they usually do, with me talking, talking, and, uh, talking more, then stopping because I am out of breathe. Then, asking Andy to start talking instead so I can shut up and focus. This continued for a couple miles until we found ourselves at the next aid station.
Andy said, “Hey, I need to run back to my car now. You’re on your own!”
“What?! Nooo! It was just starting to get fun!”
We had a pal snap a quick picture, then parted ways.
COSISTENCY//the achievement of a level of performance that does not vary greatly in quality over time
I was approaching the halfway mark of the race. It was now time to put in hard work. I took a swig of something caffeinated, and walked for a second to dial in my thoughts. I had roughly 10 miles until I would see my crew again. The trail was a bit techy through the upcoming section as it ribboned its way alongside a creek. I needed to be focused and efficient.
I learned from hundred number five that I do best in these things if I hyper focus. I think about the finish line, or the next aid station, or a past success, and refuse to let any negative thoughts enter my brain. Meanwhile, the legs just turnover and I almost forget they’re working.
Movement with this state of mind works best if your body is trained to move on autopilot. And autopilot can only be achieved by doing one thing– and that’s the same exact thing–over, and over and over again. Every day. For years.
My mind kept flashing back to all the killer routes I’d done over the past year. I had pushed myself harder in 2020 than I ever had before. I initially thought I crossed the line like always, and maybe pushed my body over the edge, but as I cruised up hill after hill I realized that the fatigue had given way to a surplus of late game strength.
I felt unstoppable.
I smiled at the strength, and I thanked myself for simply showing up, even when it felt impossible. Not just for a week or month or year, but for more than an entire decade. The daily good choices had grown into a formidable force I never could have imagined existing when I was younger. I let that high carry me into the next aid station.
We ain’t stoppin.
Adams Gap aid station was bustling with energy. At Mile 55, you’re over halfway to your goal, and due to its easy access, there’s always lots of people out volunteering and supporting their runners. I spotted Dan and Bailey waving me down.
“How you doing out there?” Dan asked.
“Well you look good!” Bailey said, filling up my pack, knowing exactly what I would need, “Blisters and chafing are at the top of the DNF list. How are you in that regard?”
The humidity was ridiculous, the rain was on and off, and it was really getting to people. I totally understood and could relate.
“I mean… My toes are pretty bad, and I’ve definitely got some chafing, but…we ain’t stoppin for crap today, guys.”
“Of course we’re not. We aren’t going to see you for 20 miles so we’ve packed you up big time.” Dan said, placing my heavy pack on my back.
“Alright,” I said, grabbing my lamp charger, “Love y’all. I’m heading out.”
It was now dark, and I knew my demons would try to come out to play over the next stretch, but I felt ready.
The next several miles would be on forest service road, my favorite. I took a deep breath, and then took off with a solid pace. As I ran, I gazed up at the stars. The sky was beautiful and clear. With no one around, I took the opportunity to pray out loud, and just spout off things I was thankful for to God. I often feel like running is our thing. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with God while running alone in the mountains. It’s where we connect the most. I took advantage of the quiet to reset and prepare my mind.
God, don’t make what comes next easy, but please… please make me strong enough to get through it.
I ran into the Mile 60 aid feeling stronger than ever. I took a couple swigs of coke, thanked the volunteers, and got on my way. It is so important to make these stops quick. Not only is the clock ticking while you’re standing still, but during a 100, comfort is your enemy. Never linger at aid stations!
The race course left the forest service road and moved back onto trail. I kept up my rhythm and focus as I inched my way to the next aid station at mile 68. Everything was going according to plan. Until my light started blinking…
I knew I had just a minute or so before my light went completely out. It had a USB charger instead of batteries, so I pulled off my pack and grabbed the cord and travel charger out of the pocket. I plugged in the lamp, and the charge light started blinking. But, the light would not turn on while it was charging.
Crap. Crap. CRAP!
It was now pitch black, and no other runners were around.
Why didn’t I bring a freaking back up?
My mind went to a billion different places, none of them good, as I dug through my pack for options.
I finally found my phone, activated some semblance of light, and began to cautiously move forward with it, determined not to let this be a major setback.
“There’s no chance I’m quitting this one. No freaking chance.” I said out loud to myself through gritted teeth.
But my mind was already unraveling. As I moved slowly through the darkness with the tiny light, I felt my resolve slip, and cringed as those old familiar demons clawed their way into my brain.
You won’t do it. You never finish anything you start!
Images of past failure took over my brain — from stupid stuff I did as a drug addicted teenager, to some seriously hurtful mistakes I’d made as an adult — I couldn’t shake it.
The only thing you’re good at is letting people down!
I felt a wave of weakness sweep over my body. My mind has always been my most terrifying battlefield. I suddenly felt every bit of those 65 miles on my legs.
Your brain is too jacked up to function. Why are you even doing this?!
“SHUT UP!!!!” I screamed at myself in the middle of the dark woods, “SHUT!! UP!!”
I bent over in defeat and dug my fingers into my my hair.
God! Please… give me strength! Help me focus!
I took in a few slow and deep breaths, “Steady, Ash. Positive. Positive, only. Control.”
Instead of memories of failure, my brain instantly became flooded with all the times I’d shown up. Not only for myself, but for the people in my life. I felt peace and energy almost instantly. I stood back up and I started moving again.
Thank you! Thank you.
I wiped my wet eyes with the back of my hand.
“I said we ain’t stoppin.”
Old Man Strength.
When I finally made it to Porters Gap, I was surprised and thankful to see AJW there ready to pace. I needed reprieve from my own brain.
“You coming with me, Old Man?”
“Yep. I’m taking you to Mile 85 and Dan’s running you in from there.”
Just what I needed.
I secured a spare headlamp, and we set off into the night. Of course we got to talking and I slowed down a bit, but I didn’t mind. It was so good to have company.
I always appreciate the conversations I have with Andy. We are both diplomatic and can easily discuss the things we disagree on without hating other. It’s something that I appreciate, as it’s a quality I feel is mostly absent in the world today. In addition to that, Andy is full of ultra wisdom. I may be a young ultra jedi, but he’s definitely Yoda. Where I have attempted somewhere like fifteen 100s, he’s started and finished 37. Just ridiculous. He’s also maintained a long happy marriage with his wife Shelly, and together they’ve raised three awesome men. Basically, AJW is where I want to be in the future. I tune out many people, but I allow myself to trust and learn from him.
“You need to eat.” Andy shouted from behind me.
“Yeah, I know. I’m working on it.” I snapped back, clutching an open gel.
This section of the course had quite a bit of climbing, so it was imperative that I stay on top of my calories. But after I finished the gel, things went south quick…
We were roughly 77 miles in, just shuffling and shooting the breeze, when suddenly my body decided to revolt and pitch a fit.
I started puking and couldn’t stop! It came out of no where.
“Don’t you dare video tape this!!!!” I cried between hurls.
Andy laughed and swore not to send any footage to our Trail Runner Nation podcast friends, Don and Scott.
“Thaaaat’s it. Get it out.” Andy said.
I got up, wiped my face with my shirt, and started running again.
“You need to replace what you just lost, but wait about 7-8 minutes to give everything a chance to settle.” Once again, solid advice. I did as I was told. Eating is not optional in a 100. Even if your stomach is off!
I spent the rest of our miles together both puking and rallying. I felt pretty banged up with nausea and eighty something miles on my legs, but somehow I still enjoyed the time with Andy.
Don’t talk to me.
When I finally made it to Bulls Gap, I was in pretty bad shape stomach wise, but my energy was stable. Andy handed me off to Dan, and I made sure to say a proper goodbye.
“Hate you, Andy!”
“Hate you, too!”
I laughed, grabbed some food, and got moving. Dan and I didn’t waste time getting back to work.
“How you feeling?” Dan asked.
My body was absolutely wasted.
“DON’T TALK TO ME.” I snapped back in pain, trying hard to concentrate. Dan turned away in an attempt to hide his laughter.
“It’s not funny, Daniel!” I stopped to puke again. I was 85 miles in, and my body was feeling every bit of it.
Dan is the only person I trust to bring me into the finish of a 100. We’ve done more brutal miles together than I have with anyone else. He’s seen me pass out cold, he’s seen me hallucinate, he’s seen me try to walk off a broken leg, and worse. Not everyone can stomach that side of me, but Dan’s married to me, so he has to.
With him by my side, I can simply stay silent and focus on working through the pain.
I had run this stretch several times over the years while training with and pacing Zach, and while racing my own races. The remaining 15 miles would be very runnable, and I needed to make good use of the time.
It’s always around this mileage in a 100 that I start trying to calculate splits in my head. Okay, if I hustle, I can make this time. If I have to walk, my finish will be this time, etc. My dream/A goal was under 24 hours, my B goal was under 25 hours, and my C goal was “just finish the stupid thing”. But I had been so focused all day, I didn’t even know what time it was. My watch was dead. I pulled my phone out of my front vest pocket to peep the time of day. It was dead, too.
“Dan, what time is it?”
Dan, probably scared to death to speak, said, “Don’t worry about it. Just go.”
Well, that was no help. I was too tired to fight him. I was still having trouble keeping food down, and starting to lack energy. I had no idea how I was doing race wise, and was scrambling for motivation.
“Okay well do you know how many women are in front of me?”
“I don’t know. Eight.. maybe nine?”
“Geez. Really?! I’m that far back?!” I suddenly felt deflated.
“It doesn’t matter. Just run!” Dan said.
He was right. All that mattered was getting to the end. So I silently obeyed, and kept up my shuffle/ run hustle as I ate. At this point there was nothing to race but the rising sun itself.
As the sun slowly started creeping through the trees lining the dusty Alabama fire road I’d grown to love so much, I felt my teeth sink in a little bit deeper to the finish line ahead of me.
“The sky is getting brighter. I’ve got to finish strong, Dan! I cannot leave anything out on this course.”
Dan said nothing, just instinctively picked up the pace beside me.
We stayed in stride until we finally arrived to the last aid station around 95 miles in. My favorite aid station might I add. Dan grabbed some breakfast burritos from our friends Anthony and Jenn manning the aid station. Seeing them is always a highlight of this race! (So are their burritos!) I was able to tolerate the food, and it brought new life to my tired body.
I took off running after that, and I didn’t slow for anything. I knew I had about five miles give or take to get to the finish. So close I could taste it. The course had changed since the year prior so I wasn’t certain where the mile markers were. But the sky was getting brighter and brighter, and I knew time was NOT on my side to finish within any of my goal times. I was exhausted but I kept pushing harder, thinking about nothing but the finish line. Every few minutes my body would flip out wondering what I was doing to it. I’d stop and bend over, and say something about “we’ve got to be getting closer”.
Dan just kept shouting, “RUN!”
So I would get up, and again I would run. The sky was alive and bright, and I figured my goal times were long lost, but I kept repeating to myself what I’ve said since I was a teenager, “You’ll get there eventually. Just keep doing the right thing… Just keep doing the right thing!”
Finally I recognized where we were on the course, and knew I had about a mile to the finish.
Dan shouted, “ASH DO NOT STOP AND DO NOT WALK! RUN!”
So I ran with absolutely everything I had! The finish line came into sight, and I heard the cheering and cowbells.
Get there. Get there! GET THERE!
As I ran towards the finish line, I saw the clock–
I burst into tears as I crosssed the line.
I had barely snagged the “B goal”, thanks to Dan.
I fell into the arms of my framily, then I dropped to the ground in exhaustion.
TIME//the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.
I was flooded with emotion. My mind went crazy with all the memories, moments, and miles.
I did it. I accomplished my goal.
Actually, I’d accomplished many goals. And for someone who has spent the better part of life beating herself up for past mistakes, it felt good to feel good about myself. I had come a very long way, and for once, I felt proud.
You know, my Mom is right– I don’t know when to quit. I never have. But somewhere along the way, I learned how to harness that trait into something worthwhile and wholesome, and now, it’s no longer something that I feel ashamed of. I think my mom saw that potential in me all along, but me…
I just needed a little bit of time.
If I could step back in time and chat with 25-year-old me who made this goal– I’d simply say thank you. Thank you for tearing down the walls of your former self. Thank you for having big dreams and creating scary goals. Thank you for not quitting when it gets hard– and man does it get hard. Thank you for having the guts to wake up every morning and choose the right thing. Thank you for going into the mountains and running miles upon miles alone so you could find inner strength. Thank you for building community, and finding friendship despite the mental health battles. Thank you for getting back up every time you fall. And thank you.. thank you.. for seeing this journey through. It was a painful process, but the transformation was beautiful.
If you’re new to this wild and crazy sport, I want you to feel encouraged about the possibilities within you. The greatest gifts you can give yourself are these: discipline, consistency, and time:
Have the discipline to set goals and see them through, even when it gets hard. Remember that “hard” doesn’t always show up in the form of mile 85 and a huge mountain. Sometimes it looks more like clinical depression and an extreme lack of interest. Sometimes it’s hard to just get out of bed. Work through it. Go through the motions and do what is best and right until you are on the other side.
Practice consistency. Habit forming comes from the little daily decisions. If you consistently make excuses for yourself, cut runs short, and find reasons to quit–you’ll do that very same thing when it matters most. Consistently do the right thing instead. Make it habit. Focus on consistently showing up and trying. It will eventually become second nature.
The last thing you can give yourself, and perhaps the most important, is simply time. It takes so much trial and error to get these things right. And you can only put your body through the ringer so many times in the span of a year. Understand and accept that you will have terrible runs and races. Probably quite a few. However, with consistent discipline and ample time, you will gain wisdom and experience on how to work through these days and learn from them. Give yourself a chance to grow and become who you know you can be.
Thank you so much for reading about my latest journey. Currently, I don’t plan on doing any more “5th Annual Last 100 Milers” until my kids graduate high school in a few years, but I do plan to tackle some wild adventures. As always, I’ll be sure to share any good stories I snag here. Love y’all!